Finding their voice

Southwest schools recognized for technology in special education

When Jefferson Elementary School teacher Mary Roffers sends her reporters out on assignment, they work as a team.

With Roffers in the lead, her elementary school students hunt the school’s hallways for interview subjects. Roffers wears a headset connected to an FM transmitter so that students with hearing loss pick up her instructions from a portable amplifier.

The small group zeros in on special education assistant David Maki, who agrees to answer a survey question.

One boy in the small group holds up a slim, black device and presses a button.

“What is your favorite vegetable?” a recording of Roffers’ voice asks.

It was this integration of technology into everyday classroom activities that won two Southwest schools statewide recognition last month.

The Developmental Cognitive Disability programs at Jefferson, 1200 W. 26th St., and Washburn High School, 201 W. 49th St., shared the Star Award for Excellence in Assistive Technology, awarded April 11 in a ceremony at the State Capitol.

Assistive technology refers to the broad category of devices that help people with disabilities function. At Washburn and Jefferson, students are using a variety of devices in combination with a new curriculum, the Star Reporter program.

Student reporters produce the monthly Jefferson Blues News and Washburn Star Reporter and distribute each issue around their schools. Teachers at both schools said the newspaper-based curriculum – in use for the first time this year – was a leap forward in special education.

Washburn teacher Cathy

Lemon said reporting makes her students more visible within the high school’s student body. Several students have even produced stories for Grist, Washburn’s regular student newspaper.

“It’s been a really positive impact,” Lemon said. “… Now my students are very socialized.”

Chuck Rassbach, executive director of the Minnesota Star Program, said the mainstreaming of special education students was a major reason the state agency he heads recognized the schools with an award.

“Too often, we have people with disabilities segregated, and this gives them an opportunity to educate their peers and just get more involved,” Rassbach said.

AbleNet, a Roseville-based assistive technology company, developed the Star Reporter program and many of the classroom devices that aid students. Its Boardmaker software, for example, allows students with low verbal ability to write articles using a combination of words and picture symbols.

The Boardmaker picture symbols are used throughout the day in some Jefferson classrooms. Some students carry books of the symbols to aid conversation with teachers.

Cathy Carr, the school district’s Developmental Cognitive Disability program facilitator, said teachers are reporting fewer behavioral problems since the technology was brought into the classroom.

“Now, the kids are able to communicate,” Carr said. “Before, they were frustrated.”

The Star Reporter curriculum is also helping the district’s special education teachers communicate among themselves. For the first time, they are working from one curriculum, instead of each developing their lesson plans


“I think within our program, it gives us more team unity,” Lemon said. “Whereas before we were working separately, we’re working together more.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at or 436-4391.